On a snowy morning late in December, I pulled the Jeep into the parking lot of the Matheson Wetlands Preserve, near Moab, Utah, to take part in its annual Christmas Bird Count. Marcy and Mary were waiting for me, coated, as I was, in shiny, “intelligent” materials. The snow glanced off our shoulders in flakes that thinned and thickened and thinned again. A clumsy stagehand worked the clouds. He couldn’t get the amount right.
“I don’t know if it’s going to get heavier or not,” Marcy said. ”But let’s go on in.” We ducked into the brush, binoculars bouncing off our impermeable chests.
How we humans do love to count and balance things out at the end of a year. I have a friend who counts all her blessings. Literally. Writes them all down, with numerals to the left and periods to the right:
3) Car still runs.
We love to make lists—the best films, the best books, who’s the hottest, who’s the richest—how many mallards are on the water (three), how many harriers in the tree (two, the Northern), how many goldfinches in the bush (one, the Lesser; none in the hand).
I know writers who count how many words they’ve written. Other friends tally up how many pounds they’ve lost or gained. I don’t like scales. I use the mirror as a thermometer, stand naked, see where the blood pools.
Businesses count their sales. Heart disease, AIDS, cancer count their losses. My husband’s prostate-specific antigens keep going up.
Miguel, not a counter like Marcy and Mary and me, but hiking above the Preserve, said there had been hardly any geese around that year, but he could remember when they were as dense in the air as the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.
“I guess I have sort of a weird way of tallying things,” he tucked his sunglasses under his chin, apologetically. “It’s the way my imagination works.”
Not at all. I knew exactly how many he meant.
I used to count my dolls, when I was a little girl, adding the ones Christmas had trucked in. My satisfaction was like a farmer’s looking over stored seed. My husband, as a boy, counted his marbles. My grandmother, who starved during the Second World War, reduced to eating boiled grass as the Japanese retreated, later in life counted the cans of peas and carrots she kept on racks in her garage. I won’t count how many times we had peas and carrots.
I know people who can’t buy any gifts until after Christmas; they need the discounts.
I asked Marcy how many times she’d done the Christmas Bird Count at the Matheson, an 894-acre, wild, riparian wetland skirting the Colorado River. Ten years and ten times, she told me, and five times as the regional compiler, responsible for all the bird-counting teams and tallies in Moab and Grand County.
This was only my second time on her team. The previous year, Marcy and I spotted a coasting bald eagle. But that day it had been sunny and clear. This year, things were eerily quiet. The snow stopped, not on a dime but down a long ramp, then turned to freezing rain. A dozen Eurasian collared doves squatted in a cottonwood, puffed and silent. I recorded their number in our waterproof journal. After a while, we noted an overabundance of magpies and robins. Nothing against them, you know, but you always hope to see something extravagant. Over the sloughs a tide of starlings rose.
“200?” I asked.
“300?” Mary asked.
“500,” Marcy said.
The more familiar you are with a thing, the better you are at counting it. Astronomers are precise as they number the stars; a baby can’t count its toes. It’s all so overwhelming, at first.
“Are those,” Mary pointed high along the ridgeline, “the same three mallards we saw on the water?”
“Let’s say yes.”
“Have we counted those magpies already?”
“Let’s say no.”
I asked Marcy if there was something she’d always longed to see in the Preserve but still hadn’t. She told me that every year she hoped for a pygmy owl. In this bad weather, she said, owls might be out—it was just dark enough, nearly crepuscular. (Google has a website, Ngram, that counts how many times a word has been used in print between the years 1800 and 2000. ”Crepuscular” is on the decline.) No sooner had Marcy said this than I started imagining I was hearing hoots. It’s a problem writers have. We count pygmies where there aren’t any.
At noon we started getting hungry and needed a break. We turned around as we drew close to the stink at the sewage plant. You don’t count the birds on the way back unless you see a new species; they’re probably the same ones you’ve counted already. We saw the same robins, or anyway decided they were; instead of owls, we came across a family of big-eyed, big-eared mule deer. A female, two young ‘uns, and across the trail from them, rutting, a six-pointed buck. All four froze and stared at us. We froze and stared back. One of the youngsters, not knowing any better, drew closer. In the buck’s eyes I imagined I read:
How many mammals?
Greater or Lesser?
Barbara Walters annually tallies up The Ten Most Fascinating People of the Year. I always hope for something extravagant but am disappointed.
Lesser, I answer. Though doing the best we can.
A buck can’t even count the points over its own head.
But he can feel the weight and knows, as time passes, he is more than he was.